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Capsule Hotels

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I had never heard of “capsule hotels” until I read this recent New York Times article. Basically, the “hotel room” or “capsule” is a small space just large enough to accommodate a comfortable night’s rest and perhaps a flat-screen TV. The “door” to the room looks like just a pull-down screen, and the units are stacked double like bunk beds. Even so, I am intrigued by the concept and would love to stay at the featured Capsule Ryokan if I am ever in Kyoto! Its owner explains on the hotel’s website how he combined the space efficiency of the small capsules typically rented by businessmen and the “traditional experience” afforded by cheap ryokan inns to create his beautifully styled inn; adding modern conveniences and keeping the inn clean and comfortable make it the perfect stop for globetrotters ready to explore the city.

Have you ever stayed in a capsule hotel? Is it a must-do, one-of-a-kind experience for a first-time visitor to Japan? Is it someplace you always try to stay? Or is it more of a “just because someone invented it doesn’t mean you should try it” type of experience?

Chicago for First Timers – Part 2

Now that I am back from several weeks of plane travel, hotel rooms, and irregular internet access, time to finish up my Intro-to-Chicago post! In Part 1, we covered Michigan Avenue (and its environs) north of the Chicago River; here in Part 2, we’ll focus on the myriad parks and museums that line Michigan Avenue south of the river.

Let’s start back at the corner of Michigan and Wacker, where we started last time. About three blocks south, you’ll come across the Millennium Monument, a semi-circle of Doric columns marking the northwest corner of Millennium Park.

columns and fountain at NW corner of Millennium ParkIts Grecian style lies in sharp contrast to the much more contemporary artwork throughout the rest of the park. Take, for example, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor bandshell that is home to the Grant Park Music Festival and its (free) outdoor concert series every summer. I’ve certainly idled away many a night beneath the Pavilion’s stainless steel arches enjoying the live music and convivial atmosphere.

bandshell

The more famous Cloud Gate, meanwhile, is a bean-shaped sculpture whose stainless steel surface reflects the Chicago skyline…or if you stand underneath it, distorted image(s) of yourself.

the Bean - city view

the Bean as seen from underneath

And finally, there’s Crown Fountain, made of two towers from which water cascades or occasionally even “spits” out. The towers’ inward-facing walls are large LED screens that  display an ever-changing array of images, so you never know who — or what, if anything — will greet you when you visit.

Regardless of the image displayed, the fountain offers a cool respite from Chicago’s hot summers and a safe, public space for children to frolic. Those of us who may be a bit older — but who still want to prance around outdoors — might be a better fit at Chicago SummerDance, a free event at the southwest corner of Grant Park on summer nights.

When you’ve had your fill of outdoor fun, head indoors to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the largest museums in the nation and home to many classics I had learned about as far back as grade school. Amongst its most notable pieces are Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, and many of Claude Monet’s Haystacks and Water Lilies. The only drawback? Admission is a bit steep – $18 for adults and $12 for students and seniors – and there’s a list of things you can and cannot bring into the museum (more details on its website).

If you prefer the performing arts to fine arts, you might want to stop by for a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra across the street or head next door (to the CSO) for a recital at Pianoforte Chicago, a piano store showcasing Fazioli pianos and frequent (packed, standing-room only) performances.

Other indoor alternatives include the nearby Field MuseumAdler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium. To get to this Museum Campus, just head towards the southeast corner of Grant Park, about a mile and a half from our starting point at the river.

Chicago for First Timers – Part 1

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I admit: when I first set foot in Chicago over a decade ago, I was not impressed. Even when I moved there for college, I was pretty miserable in this Second City, wondering how I ended up going to school in a land where people walked slower, talked slower, and just plain didn’t seem as intense and cutthroat as New York, my then-favorite city.

Before long, though, I found myself falling head over heals in love with Chicago’s lakefront running path, the warmth of the people, the many cozy teahouses and coffeeshops to hang out and study in, the frequency of fun festivals downtown, the sheer beauty of the city’s architecture, the disparate personalities of each of Chicago’s many neighborhoods, the way the blue of the sky fades straight into the blue of Lake Michigan leaving no horizon line behind…Okay, pulling myself out of nostalgia and reminiscence-land…Suffice it to say that I never intended to leave after graduation and would still move back in a heartbeat.

I get a short reprieve this weekend as I head back for a friend’s wedding, and I can’t wait to soak in as much of the city as possible. While the following recommendations are perfect and centrally located for the first-time visiter, I will certainly be revisiting many of them in the two days or so that I’ll be back in Chicagoland.

Let’s begin our journey where Michigan Avenue meets the Chicago River, a location that divides the glitz and glam of the Magnificent Mile to the north and the arts and culture  to the south. Standing here, just look upwards and take in the majesty and beauty of the buildings around you. On the northwest corner, you will find the historic Wrigley Building, whose floodlights frame it in the night sky. The Tribune Tower sits across the street, its facade embedded with dozens of stones from historic places around the world. Looking up at the skyline, you also recognize 35 East Wacker (southwest of you), whose dome was featured in Batman Returns. Several architectural boat tours take off from here as well, including Wendella Boat Tours and one offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

When you’re ready to move on, head north up Michigan Avenue, turn right just past the Tribune Tower, cut across what will look like a good place for office workers to take a lunch or cigarette break, around the traffic circle, and down those stairs you see on your left. I know, I know, not the most intuitive route, but arguably the easiest way to get from the “upper” level to the “lower” level of the city. (It’s linked above, but you can also click here to see a GoogleMap and directions for this route.)

Once you’ve navigated this path, you’ll find yourself at the famous Navy Pier. Okay, I admit this is a bit of a “tourist trap,” home to the the carnival-style attractions, a Fun House, and an IMAX theater, but it is also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and panoramic views of Lake Michigan. It’s one of those iconic places that, well, you can’t visit Chicago without seeing at least once.

As you leave, cut north across Jane Addams Memorial Park on your right, just outside the entrance of Navy Pier. On the other side, you’ll arrive at Ohio Street Beach. Now this certainly isn’t the best beach in the area (you’ll find a bit further north), and you certainly can’t compare this tiny little strip of sand to, say, Hawaii, but hey, who knew there’d even be any actual beaches in the midwest?! I would come here every once in a while when I just needed to “get away” from the city without actually leaving it. Both the beach and park are pleasant places to idle away a few hours; at the very least, they create a more scenic return to the Mag Mile. Just duck through the underpass when you’re ready to head back west (along Ohio St) to Michigan Ave.

While the “Magnificent Mile” technically began at the start of this itinerary, the southernmost blocks house mostly chain stores (including Starbucks and Walgreens) that you could find pretty much anywhere in America. The closer you get towards the Water Tower, the nicer the stores get and the heftier the price tags. Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and the like can all be found within blocks thereof.

“Water Tower” actually refers to two different places: an eight-story shopping complex, and a historic landmark across the street that commemorates the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Legend has it that the blaze that burned down nearly a third of the city began when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the barn. That tale has long since been disproved, but it continues to live on in local lore. And while the fire left tens of thousands of people homeless, it did kickstart the reconstruction process that made Michigan Avenue and downtown Chicago the glitzy tourist attraction it is today.

Finally, as you meander the streets of the Gold Coast just north and west of the Water Tower Place, you’ll encounter high end shops like MAC Cosmetics, Hermès, and Prada. Spiaggia, one of Obama’s favorite restaurants and holder of a Michelin star, is also in the neighborhood, as are other great restaurants like Gibson’s steakhouse and its sister Hugo’s Frog House and Fish Bar. (I was a bit disappointed by their signature frog legs — they really do taste like chicken — but love everything else I’ve tried there =))

Finish your day off — or just take a shopping break — relaxing at nearby Mariana Park, a cute, triangular little plaza surrounded by ritzy cafes and restaurants, or Washington Square Park, a peaceful public space a few blocks further west.

To be continued in Chicago for First Timers – Part 2

Hotwire: Love at First Try

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When planning a recent trip to San Francisco, I suffered a mild case of sticker shock when I realized that even typically budget-friendly hotels like Holiday Inn Express cost upwards of $150 per night. Any place worth booking was either booked full or asking for much more than I would ever willingly pay for a room.

I quickly e-mailed a few friends who’ve visited the city often in the past, and one highly recommended using Hotwire. I was pretty skeptical at first, since there’s no guarantee that the hotel you end up with is one that you would actually want to stay at. Nevertheless, since I trust this friend, I decided to give it a go.

What sets Hotwire “Hot Rates” apart from Priceline‘s bids, it turns out, is that with Hotwire, it’s actually pretty easy to find out exactly what you’re booking before you enter your credit card information. First, narrow down your search criteria to exactly what geographic area you want to be at. Then, further narrow down the options by the type of hotel you want (3*+, 4*+) or any other specifications you might be interested in. Next, open up GoogleMaps and search for “hotels near _insert_location_.” Now you know exactly which hotels you are comparing. At this point, what I usually do is right-click / open-in-new-tab any of the hotels that fall into the parameters set thus far. This means I ignore ultra-luxury hotels and ultra-budget ones with low reviews, focusing instead on the ones that fit the Hotwire Hot Rates hotel description. While the remaining options may seem like a lot, it’s really easy to narrow it down from here. Go back to Hotwire, click “continue” on the deal, scroll to the bottom of the page, and check out the TripAdvisor rating at the bottom of the page. Personally, I won’t risk booking any place with less than a 4.5* average TripAdvisor reviewer rating, so this usually narrows it down to just 1 or 2 hotels left for me. This doesn’t mean that the hotel is a 4*, ultra-luxury hotel; it just means that of the guests who have left reviews highly recommend it. If you’re less risk-averse, you might end up with more hotels, but it should still be down to a reasonable number by this point. Finally, double check Hotwire’s list of “Amenities” associated with the hotel. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve managed to narrow it down to exactly the hotel that I will be getting before I book. Even if you’ve narrowed it down to 3 or 4, you still have a pretty good sense of what you’re rolling the die between, especially if you skim the reviews for your remaining options.

I know this method takes time, but it’s completely worth it for me since I love all things travel, especially the planning and review-reading and anticipation part of it. If your time is more valuable to you or you’re less interested in the tedious comparisons (which I admittedly love), Hotwire also has a “if you absolutely have to know the name of your hotel” search function as well, but I’ve never tried that…

This weekend, I will gladly be staying at an Intercontinental for the price of a Holiday Inn Express — $50 less than the hotel website’s AAA rate and $60 less than their rack rate ^_^ While I’ve heard reports that hotels sometimes bump guests who buy tickets at discount rates in favor of those who pay full price, I don’t anticipate this happening (but will update this post accordingly if it does).

New York, NY: The Show Must Go On

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Having grown up just a short bus ride from New York City, I had always taken it for granted that Broadway shows, ballets, and operas were readily accessible…or at least they were to suburban students on class trips at heavily discounted prices that were funded through public school systems and, well, suburban parents. Now in my twenties, NYC excursions consist of a myriad of decisions — what to do, when to go, how much to pay, how to get there, etc. — rather than simply turning in a permission slip and payment. This also means that out-of-town friends often ask whether there are any “secrets” to getting in on a quintessential New York experience at a reasonable cost.

Here’s what I tell them.

If there are a few options you have in mind, you might want to consider waiting in line at a TKTS booth. Their tickets aren’t dirt cheap, but they’re usually pretty good when compared to normal ticket prices (~40-60% off). Prices and availability change constantly, and you won’t know until the day before or the day of whether they’ll have your show.  Lines tend to be long, but they move pretty quickly.

If you want to see a specific show (and have a flexible schedule), you might want to consider getting student rush / stand by / lottery tickets. Here’s an aggregated list of rush ticket prices. It’s pretty up-to-date, but I would check the website for the show itself just to double check. For less popular shows, you’ll probably have a good chance of getting standby tickets, but for shows as popular and “classic” as Lion King, the wait will probably be pretty long with no guaranteed chance of getting tickets.

If you want a free alternative (or if you can’t find tickets for the show you want), there’s always Shakespeare in the Park at Delacorte Theater. It’s centrally located in the heart of Central Park, and visitors often wait hours in line to get (free) tickets. They now have a book-online option as well, but it works on a lottery system. If you want more of a sure-bet, another good option is New York Classical Theatre, which uses the park itself as a stage; you follow the actors around the park as they “change sets” by moving to different locales. Check their website for details and exact location…otherwise, they’re always fun to just stumble across while wandering the park.